Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Traditional Khmer Novels

 

The Khmer word for narrative fiction is lpaen. It is defined as works for pleasure. And before the arrival of the French in the mid-19th century, all traditional Khmer novels were written in verse. The French were the ones to introduce prose to Khmer fiction. That is not to say that Khmers did not write in prose before then. Prose was exclusively used for technical writings, medicinal treatises, astrology treatises, political and religious treaties, and for the translation of Buddhist literature. A new word was coined for prose novels when the first one was published in 1938 to differentiate between verse and prose fictions. Anyway, let’s ignore prose fiction for now because this post is all about traditional Khmer fiction, the verse-novels.

Lpaen or verse-novel has always been a popular genre in Khmer literature. French colonists in the 19th century would gather around the village halls in the evenings to listen to a recitation of a lpaen. Recitation is sometimes accompanied by a string instrument. Some of the verse-novels are quite long, as long as 9,000 stanzas. And they would take at least two nights to recite. A few could be mistaken for epics because of their length and subject matter.

Verse-novels emerged in the mid-17th century with Hang Yont (Mechanical Swan) thought to be the first novel. Most of these novels were sometime alleged to be Jātaka (tales of the Buddha’s previous lives) because some were written in the style of Jātaka with the usual preface benediction in Pali to the Buddha, the Dhamma (Buddha’s teaching), the Sangha (ordained monks and nuns), and the epilogue that includes the future lives of the characters. But the majority of these novels had nothing to do with Buddhism; the link to Buddhism was very minor. If anything, they had everything to do with Brahmanism even when Theravada Buddhism had replaced Hinduism permanently by the 16th century. For example, in Preah Ko Preah Keo, the main character Preah Ko was the manifestation of Nandi the Bull, Lord Shiva’s mount. Several of these stories were folktales rewritten in verse forms. Vorvong and Sourivong was based on a popular folktale, which itself was based on the adventures of two condemned Khmer princely brothers.

A conventional story usually started with the birth of a prince. Then a jealous concubine accused the young prince of some transgressions, or the king was offended by a “flaw” in the prince; in Khyan Sankh, the prince was born with a shell attached to him. The prince and his mother were sentenced to death by execution. But at the last minute, the executioner took pity on both mother and child and let them go. The mother and child encountered a powerful sage, who then took the child as a student. The budding hero learned martial and magical arts. Later, he went off to have his many adventures in the Himalayas. Along the way, he battled giants and the semi-divine yaksha, rescued a princess or two, and gained a wife and a kingdom. Ultimately, the hero returned to his birthplace with his new army to either take the throne by force or reconcile with his father.

The hero used both physical and magical means to fight. He traveled by air via a mechanical bird (usually a swan), but his transport wasn’t always reliable. His mechanical bird malfunctioned and dumped him in the ocean, oftentimes in the middle of a storm. The hero had an animal as a companion. In Preah Jinavong, the main character Jinavong traveled with a naughty monkey. The horse in Puthhisaen Neang Kang Rei irritably told the hero not to idle about or he, the horse, will leave without him. On the other hand, the heroines weren’t always of the damsel-in-distress variety. In Sovannahang, Ket Soryong was well-versed in both martial and magical arts. She had her own adventures with a giant as a companion and they saved the hero from certain death. Kang Rei, in Puthhisaen Neang Kang Rei, commanded her own army. A pregnant Botum Surya in Preah Jinavong journeyed alone on a white elephant to find her husband.

The yaksha, garudas, and the giants weren’t always portrayed as uncivilized beasts either. They didn’t go around stealing princesses or snacking on men. Citra, the giant king in Sovannahang, ruled benignly over both men and giants. The yaksha in Khyan Sankh raised the hero as a son. She doted on him. She became sad when he decided to leave her to search for his real mother. She gave him three magical gifts and died from a broken heart. The naga king in Sankh Silp Jay was a loving husband to his human wife. Jinavong in Preah Jinavong was brought up by the king of the Underworld.

The Gods also played a role. Lord Shiva granted wishes to various characters. He had Vishwakarma, the divine architect and engineer, build grand palaces for the heroes. Lord Indra often offered the destitute heroines a helping hand. In Moranak Meada, Lord Indra showed the heroine how to transform herself from a sarika bird back into her human form. The lonely young man in Bhogakula Kumar had only a white dog for company; Lord Indra bestowed upon the young man a Himalayan deity as a wife. Magic was used throughout. An ax that was about to come down on the hero’s neck would suddenly turn into a bouquet of flowers. Baby girls were often found in flowers. Baby Kaki was found in a lotus blossom by a sage in Kaki. Oracles were aplenty. They wielded immense power when it came to dream interpretations. In Rajakul, the oracle told the king that the horse wanted to marry the princess. It turned out the horse was a fine man. The oracle in Sudham wanted his own daughter to marry the prince, and while the prince was away, he declared that the prince’s fiancée had to be sacrificed to avert catastrophe.

Some stories did not stick to the above narrative devices and themes. Some were about animals. Bejjata is a story about a pair of birds who were threatened by a forest fire. The female would not leave her eggs. She died thinking her male had abandoned her while he was away. Before following her into the fire, the male prayed that they may reunite in their next lives. She was reborn as a princess who spoke to no males. He was a man who taught her how to speak.

Another story that rejected the traditional formula is Tum Teav, which is a tragic love story about a doomed affair between Tum, a handsome novice monk, and Teav, a beautiful adolescent girl who was “literally” on the cusp of womanhood. Tum Teav is based on a real story. It is believed to have taken place in the late 16th century in Tbong Khmom district, in present-day Kampong Cham province. There are many versions of the story, which were composed by various poets over the centuries. You can read my summary of the story here.

These verse-novels are still popular among the general public. Some have been adapted into various entertainment mediums such as ballets, films, folk and classical theaters, songs, comics, and radio dramas. Sovannahang, Khyan Sankh and Preah Jinavong are very popular among the ballet repertoires. Tum Teav, probably the most popular of all the verse-novels, is part of secondary school curriculum.

Stories mentioned in the post:

Khyan Sankh (Shell Shell) by Min Uk, 1729

Hang Yont (Mechanical Swan) by Yam Punybhaktr, 1668

Sovannahang (Golden Swan) author unknown, mid-17th century

Preah Jinavong (Lord Jinavong) by Hing, 1856

Preah Ko Preah Keo by Kao, 18th century

Vorvong and Sourivong by various authors, 19th century

Puthhisaen Neang Kang Rei, author and date unknown

Sankh Silp Jay by Uk, 1882

Moranak Meada (Mother’s Death) by Uk 1877

Bhogakula Kumar by Kleang Norng, 1804

Rajakul by Varapanna, early 18th century

Kaki by King Ang Duong, 1815

Mea Yoen (Our Uncle) author and date unknown

Bejjata by Dhammapanna Maen, 1858

Sudham author and date unknown. Based on Sudhana Jataka in Pali

Source: The Traditional Literature of Cambodia: A Preliminary Guide by Judith M. Jacob

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  1. Arahant Member

    Did they tend to stick to a particular verse form or set of forms?


    This conversation is today’s entry in our Group Writing Series, a great way to dip your toe into the wider world of Ricochet than politics. November’s theme is “novel,” which can be about long works of fiction or things that are novel or novel to you. We still have three dates open, if you would like to set your hand to it.

    • #1
    • November 11, 2017, at 1:11 PM PST
    • Like
  2. Randy Webster Member

    You need to mention Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny. He fastened on to a lot of these themes. Of course, it may be cultural appropriation, and therefore verboten.

    • #2
    • November 11, 2017, at 1:17 PM PST
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  3. Judge Mental Member

    It seems incredible that they only got the prose novel that recently. But then I realized I don’t really know when they started in the west. Earliest I can think of off the top of my head are late 1700’s.

    Or was Chaucer prose? Not sure.

    • #3
    • November 11, 2017, at 1:21 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  4. LC Member
    LC Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Did they tend to stick to a particular verse form or set of forms?


    This conversation is today’s entry in our Group Writing Series, a great way to dip your toe into the wider world of Ricochet than politics. November’s theme is “novel,” which can be about long works of fiction or things that are novel or novel to you. We still have three dates open, if you would like to set your hand to it.

    Khmer poetry has close to fifty metre forms and each is used according to moods, though not strictly.

    • #4
    • November 11, 2017, at 1:52 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  5. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    It seems incredible that they only got the prose novel that recently. But then I realized I don’t really know when they started in the west. Earliest I can think of off the top of my head are late 1700’s.

    Or was Chaucer prose? Not sure.

    Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded, 1740; The Castle of Otranto, 1765 are often cited. There must be some sophistry involved in determining the demarcation point between Chaucer and the novel more or less as we know it, but I don’t know where it is.

    Excellent post as always, LC. Thanks for yet another fascinating look into another world.

    • #5
    • November 11, 2017, at 1:54 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    Judge Mental (View Comment):
    It seems incredible that they only got the prose novel that recently. But then I realized I don’t really know when they started in the west. Earliest I can think of off the top of my head are late 1700’s.

    Or was Chaucer prose? Not sure.

    Chaucer was still verse. Cervantes’ Don Quixote (El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha) is considered the first modern western novel in 1605 and 1615. In English, Defoe was considered one of the first novelists starting with Robinson Crusoe in 1719.

    • #6
    • November 11, 2017, at 2:40 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  7. Arahant Member

    More on the English prose novel.

    • #7
    • November 11, 2017, at 2:42 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  8. Arahant Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    The Castle of Otranto

    That started the Gothic literature movement. Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House also started the Gothic revival architecture, if I remember.

    • #8
    • November 11, 2017, at 2:44 PM PST
    • 1 like
  9. Arahant Member

    LC (View Comment):
    Khmer poetry has close to fifty metre forms and each is used according to moods, though not strictly.

    Do you know of any dictionary of those forms? Preferably in English?

    • #9
    • November 11, 2017, at 2:48 PM PST
    • 1 like
  10. LC Member
    LC Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    LC (View Comment):
    Khmer poetry has close to fifty metre forms and each is used according to moods, though not strictly.

    Do you know of any dictionary of those forms? Preferably in English?

    Only in French. But Judith M. Jacob talked a bit about Khmer versification in her writings.

    There’re about twenty or so metre forms that are still used today. These seven are the oldest and the most widely used: Brahmagiti (Brahma’s song metre), Baky Buon (four-syllable metre), Bamnol (narration metre), Mahajay (victory metre), Kakagati (crow’s gait metre), Bhujunlila (serpent’s movement metre) and Mandukgati (frog’s gait metre).

    • #10
    • November 11, 2017, at 3:36 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. Arahant Member

    LC (View Comment):
    Only in French

    What is the french book?

    • #11
    • November 11, 2017, at 3:42 PM PST
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  12. Randy Webster Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Gary McVey (View Comment):
    The Castle of Otranto

    That started the Gothic literature movement. Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House also started the Gothic revival architecture, if I remember.

    Is that the one they keep referring to in Northanger Abbey?

    • #12
    • November 11, 2017, at 3:53 PM PST
    • 1 like
  13. Misthiocracy got drunk and Member
    Misthiocracy got drunk and Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gadsby?

    ;-)

    • #13
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:02 PM PST
    • 1 like
  14. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    LC, you are my favorite tour guide of the mind and heart! (Any chance of a food post sometime?) Thanks again!

    • #14
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:08 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  15. Randy Webster Member

    Misthiocracy (View Comment):
    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gadsby?

    ;-)

    Did you read Ulysses? Worst fiction I ever encountered.

    • #15
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:10 PM PST
    • 1 like
  16. Arahant Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    Is that the one they keep referring to in Northanger Abbey?

    Are you thinking of The Mysteries of Udolpho?

    • #16
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:11 PM PST
    • 1 like
  17. Randy Webster Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    Is that the one they keep referring to in Northanger Abbey?

    Are you thinking of The Mysteries of Udolpho?

    Yes, thanks.

    • #17
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:12 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. Arahant Member

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):
    LC, you are my favorite tour guide of the mind and heart! (Any chance of a food post sometime?) Thanks again!

    Hmmmn, sounds like a good idea for the December theme for Group Writing.

    • #18
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:12 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  19. Arahant Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy (View Comment):
    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gadsby?

    ;-)

    Did you read Ulysses? Worst fiction I ever encountered.

    I suspect he agrees.

    • #19
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:14 PM PST
    • 1 like
  20. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy (View Comment):
    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gatsby?

    ;-)

    Did you read Ulysses? Worst fiction I ever encountered.

    I don’t think it’s fiction at all; I think it’s word-painting – a la Jackson Pollock – ink, not oil/latex. I don’t like it, either…

    • #20
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:14 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  21. Randy Webster Member

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy (View Comment):
    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gadsby?

    ;-)

    Did you read Ulysses? Worst fiction I ever encountered.

    I don’t think it’s fiction at all; I think it’s word-painting – a la Jackson Pollock – ink, not oil/latex

    Lol. I didn’t think highly of Pollock, either.

    • #21
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:15 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. Randy Webster Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy (View Comment):
    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gadsby?

    ;-)

    Did you read Ulysses? Worst fiction I ever encountered.

    I suspect he agrees.

    I sort of liked Gatsby. Plus, I just got to answer a trivia question about East and West Egg.

    • #22
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:18 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  23. Randy Webster Member

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy (View Comment):
    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gatsby?

    ;-)

    Did you read Ulysses? Worst fiction I ever encountered.

    I don’t think it’s fiction at all; I think it’s word-painting – a la Jackson Pollock – ink, not oil/latex. I don’t like it, either…

    He can take his word paintings elsewhere. I read fiction for a story. If I wanted word paintings, I’d read poetry.

    • #23
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:21 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  24. Arahant Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I sort of liked Gatsby. Plus, I just got to answer a trivia question about East and West Egg.

    But do you know about the Big Enders and the Little Enders?

    • #24
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:22 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  25. Nanda Panjandrum Inactive

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Nanda Panjandrum (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy (View Comment):
    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gatsby?

    ;-)

    Did you read Ulysses? Worst fiction I ever encountered.

    I don’t think it’s fiction at all; I think it’s word-painting – a la Jackson Pollock – ink, not oil/latex. I don’t like it, either…

    He can take his word paintings elsewhere. I read fiction for a story. If I wanted word paintings, I’d read poetry.

    Agree. Maybe Joyce’s work got poured from a succession of cheap bottles?…

    • #25
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:25 PM PST
    • 1 like
  26. Randy Webster Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I sort of liked Gatsby. Plus, I just got to answer a trivia question about East and West Egg.

    But do you know about the Big Enders and the Small Enders?

    Nope. That’s over my head. Though I did read, and liked, Ender’s Game.

    • #26
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:26 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  27. Arahant Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I sort of liked Gatsby. Plus, I just got to answer a trivia question about East and West Egg.

    But do you know about the Big Enders and the Little Enders?

    Nope. That’s over my head.

    Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians ate their soft-boiled egg from the little end, while their rivals, the Blefuscans, ate their soft-boiled eggs from the big ends. War ensued, of course.

    • #27
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:29 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  28. Randy Webster Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):
    I sort of liked Gatsby. Plus, I just got to answer a trivia question about East and West Egg.

    But do you know about the Big Enders and the Small Enders?

    Nope. That’s over my head.

    Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians ate their soft-boiled egg from the little end, while their rivals, the Blefuscans, ate their soft-boiled eggs from the big ends. War ensued, of course.

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians ate their soft-boiled egg from the little end, while their rivals, the Blefuscans, ate their soft-boiled eggs from the big ends. War ensued, of course.

    Of course.

    • #28
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:30 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  29. Randy Webster Member

    Arahant (View Comment):
    Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the Lilliputians ate their soft-boiled egg from the little end, while their rivals, the Blefuscans, ate their soft-boiled eggs from the big ends. War ensued, of course.

    I’ve never figured out how to eat a soft-boiled egg from either end.

    • #29
    • November 11, 2017, at 4:38 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  30. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    Misthiocracy (View Comment):
    I’m only interested in avant-garde Khmer novels. What’s the Khmer equivalent of Ulysses or Gadsby?

    ;-)

    Did you read Ulysses? Worst fiction I ever encountered.

    I suspect he agrees.

    I sort of liked Gatsby. Plus, I just got to answer a trivia question about East and West Egg.

    The Great Gatsby is like what Rossini said about Wagner’s music: beautiful moments and rotten quarters of an hour.

    • #30
    • November 11, 2017, at 5:27 PM PST
    • 2 likes

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